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June 12, 2020

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Tiny bird statue rewrites story of Chinese carving

An international team of archaeologists from China, Canada, France, Israel and Norway yesterday said a 13,500-year-old miniature bird sculpture unearthed in central China’s Henan Province may be the oldest known Chinese sculpture.

The discovery not only puts back the origin of sculpture in East Asia by more than 8,500 years but also the history of the art form of birds in China by 8,000 years.

The statue, 19.2 millimeters long, 5.1mm wide and 12.5mm high, is dark brown on one side and bronze on the other.

Made of a mammalian limb bone, which had been heated and charred before carving, the figurine has a stout body, short head, round beak and long tail. Instead of carving the bird’s legs, the ancient artist cut a base for the sculpture to stand on.

Li Zhanyang, the lead writer of the archaelogical study and a professor from Shandong University, said that the figurine was recovered from the Paleolithic site of Lingjing in Henan.

The site in the city of Xuchang is also known for the discovery of human cranial fossils dating back 105,000 to 125,000 years ago, which has been named as the hominids “Xuchang Man.”

During Li’s excavation work at Lingjing since 2005, he has seen stratified layers ranging in age from 120,000 years to the Bronze Age.

Radiocarbon dating on 32 samples from the burnt animal remains and burnt bones with anthropogenic gouging marks found alongside the bird figurine suggested that the samples all date back 13,500 years.

“Carving traces suggest they were cut with fine stone tools,” said Li.

Peering through a microscope, researchers marveled at the techniques of grinding, polishing, scraping and cutting used in carving such a small object.

“This is the only sculpture in East Asia that can be traced back to the Late Pleistocene era. The discovery marks the recognition of a primitive artistic tradition,” said Li.

The teams findings are described in a study published in the latest issue of the open-access journal PLoS One.

The world’s oldest known figurative art pieces date back between 33,000 and 43,000 years and were found in caves in Swabian Jura, in Germany.


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